(New York, NY) — The literary and free expression groups PEN America and PEN Sydney issued an urgent joint call today for the immediate release of four Iranian writers being unjustly held in detention. Marking the annual Day Against Censorship, the organizations demand Iran release writer-translator Arash Ganji and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honorees Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi. Nearly 90 prominent writers, artists, and activists have signed a PEN America letter calling for the release of the Freedom to Write awardees, including Meryl Streep, Khaled Hosseini, Jonathan Franzen, Sandra Cisneros, and Margaret Atwood. 

“Iran consistently meets peaceful expression with repression and violence,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “On this Day Against Censorship, it is our job to speak up in solidarity with the writers whose voices this despotic regime has tried to silence. Iranian authorities must overturn the bogus convictions of these courageous writers, release them and all those unjustly detained from prison immediately, and allow the Iranian Writers Association and its members to write and advocate freely, without fear of harsh repercussions.” 

The Iranian Writers Association (IWA) originally designated December 4 as the Day Against Censorship in 2008, to commemorate the abduction and murder in 1998 of two of their members, Mohammed Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh. Each year, the IWA and creative artists around the world honor and commemorate the Iranian writers and activists unlawfully killed and imprisoned and call on the Iranian government to end the criminalization of free expression. Since September 2020, Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi—three IWA board members—have been imprisoned at Tehran’s Evin prison in relation to a Ministry of Intelligence investigation into their written works and involvement with the IWA. Following a trial and appeal marred with legal issues, each were convicted of “colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda” and sentenced to a collective 15-and-a-half years in prison. A fourth board member and former secretary of the IWA, Arash Ganji, was imprisoned in late October on multiple spurious national security charges related to his translation of a book about a Kurdish-led uprising in northern Syria. Ganji is also currently serving a mandatory minimum of 5 years of his 11-year sentence at Evin prison. 

The IWA honored the day by saying the following: “Under the statehood run by censorship the independent writers and freedom loving people have been always threatened, sent to exile, imprisoned, and murdered. But censorship is not limited to the life and skill of writers and artists, it directly affects the culture of society and all aspects of life. In the presence of free media corruption and systematic crime would not occur easily, therefore the thieves and criminals support censorship because when freedom of expression exists they would have less possibility to steal people’s livelihood.”

“Censorship! The Islamic regime in Iran is defined by this atrocious word,” said Mansour Razaghi, exiled Kurdish Iranian journalist and PEN Sydney committee member. “The regime has arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed tens of thousands simply because they dared—or appeared—to disagree with the government meant to serve them. Iran, release our writers. Today.”

The state of freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Iran has continued to deteriorate in recent years, with frequent suppression of writers through tactics of legal prosecution, harassment, and even targeted murders intended to silence critical perspectives. According to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index, Iran jailed the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals globally. PEN America and PEN Sydney continue to advocate on behalf of a number of individuals sentenced or imprisoned for their expression, including writers, journalists, and activists.